The concern of food poisoning used to be primarily limited to improper handling and preparation of meals in restaurants and in the home. Over the last few years, massive outbreaks of serious illness and death caused by large scale food contamination, such spinach contaminated with E Coli, peanut butter carrying salmonella, and the pet food contamination which we later discovered crossed over into contamination of human foods, have made most of us leery about the foods we buy and eat.
We cannot, however, simply stop eating, and with the government’s very limited capacity to inspect foods coming in from overseas, these outbreaks are likely to continue. Of course, the element of food handling, storage, and contamination in restaurants and local stores has not been removed, but merely added to by these large scale concerns.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that there are bout 76 million cases of food poisoning in the U.S. every year, with about 5,000 resulting in death. We typically think of food poisoning as illness caused by bacteria, but food can also become harmful or deadly when it is contaminated with viruses passed along by infected food handlers, chemicals and even foreign objects.
Food can be contaminated when bacteria are transferred from a person, animal, preparation surface, or other food, due to poor hygiene or improper food handling practices. Improper storage can cause food to spoil, and failure to fully cook foods can also cause food poisoning.
There are many strains of E Coli. Not all of them are harmful, but some are deadly. E Coli bacteria come from feces. Food can be contaminated during storage and preparation by people’s hands, utensils, packaging, or preparation surfaces. Undercooked meats are a common source because meat typically comes into contact with feces during the slaughtering process. E Coli can also reach produce in the fields through contaminated irrigation water, animals defecating in fields, and improper fertilization methods.
Undercooked poultry is the most commonly known source of salmonella poisoning. Salmonella is spread among poultry largely due to the poor conditions in which the birds are raised. The bacteria can be killed by cooking meat to temperatures over 150 degrees, and proper refrigeration controls its growth. Cross contamination of other foods is a common result of poor food handling and lack of cleanliness.
Mayonnaise-based foods are a common source of food poisoning, and it is a common misconception that salmonella is the culprit. In reality, bacteria called staphylococcus aureus is the underlying problem. It is found in the skin, nose, and respiratory passages of about half of all people, and it is not the bacteria which causes the illness, but a toxin produced by the bacteria as it grows. The bacteria itself can be destroyed by cooking, but the toxin cannot. Most foods containing mayonnaise, such as potato salad and cole slaw, are not cooked. Proper refrigeration and hand washing are necessary to prevent this type of food poisoning.
Very rare, but very deadly, botulism kills about 30% of its victims. Canned foods are the most common source. Boiling food for 10 minutes will kill the bacteria.